A few weeks ago, Setsuko Winchester, a former journalist at NPR, visited the Park as part of her Freedom from Fear Project. On one of the coldest days in January, she arranged 120 hand-made yellow tea bowls along the granite edges at the Park and photographed them. We asked Setsuko to share the story behind this project with us. In doing so, we wanted to highlight a unique chapter in the history of this country, that of Japanese internment. You can read more about this subject at fdr4freedoms.org's Evicted and Detained: Japanese American Internment, and more about Setsuko's work below.
FFP: Tell us a little bit about your Freedom from Fear Project and the impetus behind starting it?
SW: I am a Japanese-American, a ceramicist, and former journalist at NPR. In December of 2015, my husband and I took off from our home in Massachusetts with a box of 120 hand-pinched brightly glazed yellow tea bowls I had made, with the intention of visiting as many of the ten Japanese Internment camps as possible, weather permitting, and to photograph the bowls at each location. Until recently I didn’t even know the names of most of the camps. I had heard of Manzanar, Heart Mountain, and Tule Lake, but Amache? Gila River? Jerome, Minidoka, Poston 1, 2 and 3, Rohwer, and Topaz? They were located in not just California, or Arizona, but also in Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.
The project started as something I was doing for myself. I did not grow up learning about the camps and it was a part of American history that I had avoided most of my life, even during the ten years I was at NPR in Washington. The few times I did try to find out more, it was very difficult because, one, there was very little information available and two, no one wanted to talk about it. But being married to a writer who has written books about America, loves this country and even became a citizen in 2011, I kept running into the question “Who is an American?” “What does citizenship mean?” and “How long do you have to be here to be considered part of this mongrel American tribe?”
A few years back, a woman said to me, “You can not know yourself unless you know your history.” By then, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and the internet (Densho, for example, is a great resource), a lot more information has become available. Also thanks to the WWII anniversaries, many books have come out just in the last two years about this period of history that was never available before.
FFP: What is the significance of the yellow bowls? What was the process for creating them and how long did it take?
SW: Being of Japanese ancestry and a ceramicist, it seemed natural to express my ideas in clay. For the Japanese, ceramic pots are the architecture of life. There is a pot for every occasion from the ordinary to the celebratory to the solemn. I chose the tea bowl because the philosophy of tea is all about celebrating humanity. A tea bowl fits in the palm of your hand. It is human in scale. It is an attempt to find beauty in the everyday. A handmade tea bowl may not be perfect, but it has soul. It seemed a natural way to bring together, art, history and a personal journey.
Each of the 120 bowls represents 1,000 of the 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry (of which 70% were US citizens) who were incarcerated after FDR signed Executive Order 9066 in February of 1942. I chose yellow to represent “The Yellow Peril” as they were referred to at the time. I glazed each one various shades of yellow inside and out, some shiny, others matte to emphasize that they were individuals, not one monolithic entity: there were farmers, doctors, dentists, carpenters, gardeners, painters, sculptors, musicians, bankers, Buddhists, Christians, etc. I also varied their sizes. I pinched bowls that were very small to the oversized to represent the fact that those incarcerated ranged across the human spectrum - as tiny as babies, as large as Sumo wrestlers. The Yellow Peril were fathers, mothers, grandparents, college students, orphaned infants. I wanted to show that we were as threatening as tea bowls.
As for my process, I like to hand build. Unlike throwing on the wheel for example, pinching a vessel is a lot more time consuming, but I prefer the subtle differences you get from a hand pinched bowl. I would pinch on average about 10 bowls a week (to give my hands a rest from over pinching, I would try to pinch every other day thus avoid getting carpal tunnel) so about three months to pinch 120 bowls and finish each one off with a different foot and allow them to dry. I then fire them twice; once to bisque the pots, and then again to fire them after they have been glazed. So to finish the whole process, I would say it took me about 4 months.
FFP: Why did you call your project Freedom from Fear?
SW: It’s in reference to FDR’s Four Freedoms Speech in which he said that Americans had the right to Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Want and the Freedom from Fear. My ceramic essay is an attempt to use something beautiful to examine an ugly part of our history thus turning its memory inside out. Rather than expose the ugliness of those who perpetuated and confirmed the Fear (FDR included), I wanted to show the humanity of those who were incarcerated. They were not soulless, faceless, monsters but individuals with hopes and dreams of making a new life, like all immigrants who found their way to America. Freedom from Fear implies an “other.” I hope I was able to make the other side visible.
FFP: How many WWII internment camps did you visit? What are these camps like?
SW: We were able to get to six of them. As it was December, we decided to try to get to the camps in the warmer southern states. What surprises many is that there were two in Arkansas, Rohwer and Jerome, situated 27 miles apart. Located in the flood plains of the Mississippi Delta, they are now both private farms but the graves of those who died still remain as well as memorials erected by internees that stand as a marker to what happened. There are also a few other structures like the water tank and smoke stacks from the hospitals that still remain.
The actor George Takei of Star Trek fame was Rohwer’s most famous inmate. In 2013, a small private interpretive center was created in the small town of McGhee which is located between the two camps. When we visited, the sign for The WWII Japanese American Internment Museum was damaged with what the curator thinks was a shot gun. She is an amazingly brave and lovely white southern lady who does her job despite the fact that many around her don’t know, don’t care or just think it’s down right wrong and let her know it.
Poston 1, 2, and 3 and Gila River are located on Indian land. The former was the largest (in square miles) and was the most studied of all the camps with nearly 18,000 inmates. Called Roastin, Toastin and Dustin for its remote desert location, the entire camp was said to be surrounded by one single fence and was so remote that the War Relocation Authority did not think it was necessary to have guard towers. When you visit, it is so spread out and open that you can easily drive right by the kiosk and memorial that was erected by former internees with the support of the Colorado River Indian Tribe in 1992 as a marker. Gila River is very special in that it is located on Sovereign Indian land. In order to visit, you must apply for a permit. The process usually takes at least a month. Once inside, you have to drive what feels like a long bumpy way to get to the site, but the Indian tribe has respectfully left a part of the original camp area undisturbed so that one can imagine the outline of the original camp if you climb up on a nearby bluff. At the top of the bluff there is the original water tank and a monument to those Japanese American boys who fought and died for their country.
Manzanar is probably the most famous of all the camps due to the children’s book “Farewell to Manzanar” which came out in the 1970s. It is located at the foothills of the Eastern Sierra in California just west of Death Valley. It boasts a full-blown Interpretive Center with a dedicated National Parks Service Staff that mans the facility and provides guidance. Here too, acts of vandalism are not unexpected, according to the rangers.
The final one we managed to catch on our way home was Amache in Colorado. This camp’s water tower still serves the local community. While the former internee community and locals have been trying their best to preserve what’s left, the place seems to be hanging on by a finger nail to keep from disappearing into history. The local high school principal and his students are the main force that keeps the camp and the one room interpretive center going. Here too, the efforts of a dedicated few are heroic.
Doing the internment camp tour, you not only realize how big this country is, but you also see another America, one that’s invisible to most Americans.
FFP: In addition to WWII internment camps, what other locations have you photographed?
SW: I hope to take my bowls to iconic places in America which illustrate the concept of Freedom from Fear, for example the Rotunda at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts near where I live. In it hangs four paintings done by the legendary American illustrator, Norman Rockwell - including his depictions of FDR’s Four Freedoms. I would like to place all 120 bowls beneath the iconic image of parents tucking their children into bed.
I also want to take the bowls to Washington, DC to the Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in WWII and the FDR Memorial.
Eventually, I would like to take my bowls beyond the Japanese American experience. There was a lot of fear during the time of the camps and it feels much the same today.
FFP: Why did you choose to include Four Freedoms Park in your project?
SW: I had to bring them to Four Freedoms Park because I was born in NY City and my family has an apartment on the east side from where I often jog to a place where I can see the memorial from across the river. I admire Louis Kahn’s clean lines and appreciate the almost unearthly line of perfectly pruned trees. What better place to line my bowls and show that there is also beauty in man’s imperfection. In Japan, the cherry blossom symbolizes the human condition: finite, imperfect and yet beautiful. By coincidence or perhaps not, there is an annual cherry blossom festival that occurs under the cherry blossoms that line the banks of Roosevelt Island leading to the memorial.
FFP: How are you sharing these photos?
SW: Ironically, though I appreciate the internet as a place to search and explore I do not participate in social media, despite the fact that I was a former journalist. I’m more of an observer than an exhibitionist, but I think I will have to get over this if I want to share my vision. I bought a full frame digital camera, which gives me the ability to print large reproductions of photographs that I took in each of the camps and the other location. I hope to stage an exhibition showing the original 120 pots with a photo of them in each of the places to which they have traveled. I also plan to organize the photos together in book form, with text explaining the project in the hope of raising public awareness of a forgotten part of American history.
FFP: This year marks the 75th anniversary of FDR’s four freedoms speech. Do you think his speech is still relevant today?
SW: America is a country based on a concept. I believe that it works as well as the people who believe in it and willing to abide by it. I was struck by a quote I saw in a documentary at Manzanar. It said, “In America we have no King or Queen, just the constitution. Once that starts to unravel, so does the country.” FDR said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” As a Japanese American I see both the irony and the profound truth in that statement.
All photos, except as noted, are courtesy of Setsuko Winchester.